The on-time high school graduation rate in Philadelphia has risen from 52 to 65 percent over the last eight years. A new report shows that the most rapid progress has been among traditionally at-risk groups including Black males, Hispanics, students in foster care, and those involved in the juvenile justice system.
The improvement, much of which occurred during a period of shrinking District resources, coincided with the work of Project U-Turn. That is the city’s longstanding and multifaceted project to stem the tide of students who drop out of school by ramping up and coordinating services they need. The general rise in graduation rates mirrors an increase nationwide over the same period, but not all urban areas showed gains.
In the latest report growing out of the project, researchers analyzed individual student data from seven cohorts of first-time 9th graders, beginning with the class that started high school in 2002 and continuing through the class that started high school in 2008. The goal was to provide more detailed information on what had been driving the increases and gain insights into which initiatives and policies were effective.
Researchers also measured yearly dropout rates. They found that fewer students are dropping out at all stages of high school and that more dropouts seek alternative ways to earn a diploma.
“Today we have 2,000 fewer students dropping out compared to eight years ago, and of those who do drop out, more than ever before, they are successfully re-engaged in some alternative pathway,” said Mayor Nutter in a statement. Nutter has made increasing graduation rates a major objective of his administration. “That’s 2,000 young people now who have many more doors open to them.”
Nutter had set as a target a six-year graduation rate of 80 percent. That rate is now 70 percent.
Although, he said, “it is tremendous to see that we are starting to figure out how to support our most vulnerable and underserved young people,” he also noted that “we have a long way to go to close the gaps.”
Superintendent William Hite said a big lesson from the new report is the importance of “supportive services outside the traditional classroom setting” to the success of the city’s youth. More are needed, he said, especially for groups like English language learners.
Project U-Turn is a collaboration among the District, government, the courts, foundations, advocacy groups, and families, designed to improve educational outcomes for city students. One of the key components is increased cooperation and data-sharing among the District, the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS), the state Department of Health, and family and juvenile courts.
Examples are the District’s Re-engagement Center and an Education Support Center at DHS. A task force meets every other month to share data, compare notes, and track services, while work groups on specific problems meet more frequently.
Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), which coordinates Project U-Turn, said that Philadelphia is breaking down government and agency silos that often hindered effective interventions for students and families.
Fulmore-Townsend pointed at graduation-rate gains among groups that had all but been written off in the past, such as children in foster care. These young people frequently move from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, and they have suffered from neglect or abuse.
Before the coordination of services brought about by Project U-Turn, barely 25 percent of children in foster care graduated from high school. Now, their graduation rate is above 40 percent – still very low, but a major improvement.
The numbers of students in such high-risk groups are significant. About 20 percent of city students, one in five, have some involvement with DHS, the juvenile justice system, or both.
“We are pleased with this report, as it shows dramatic improvements in graduation across all levels of participation among DHS-involved youth,” said DHS Commissioner Vanessa Garrett Hartley. “We still have more work to do because despite these large gains for our youth, their graduation rates continue to lag far behind.”
DHS has stationed some caseworkers in schools and is getting ready to move its Education Support Center to District headquarters.
Beyond agency-involved youth, there are still major gaps in graduation rates among ethnic groups and between males and females. But groups that lagged furthest behind – Black boys and Hispanic boys and girls – made the biggest gains (see chart, p. 17).
Adolescent mothers showed less improvement, but even their graduation rate jumped by 12 percentage points. Young mothers, however, still have about half the chance of graduating as female students who don’t give birth during their school-age years.
“This is a long haul, but we’re chipping at it,” said Fulmore-Townsend, of PYN.
The latest report, called “A Promise Worth Keeping: Advancing the High School Graduation Rate in Philadelphia,” is a follow-up to the 2006 study “Unfulfilled Promise” that catalogued the scope of the dropout crisis in the city. The new study was compiled by researchers at the Policy Lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
Understanding the improvements
Fulmore-Townsend said that the gains described reflect more attention being paid to early warning indicators – absenteeism, low grades, and early disciplinary problems.
“I think schools are using data in important ways to identify young people who are struggling,” she said. “There’s a movement to put data in the hands of parents and help them understand” the importance of regular attendance.
Now, “early warning indicators are a norm in Philadelphia conversations about how a young person is progressing in their education path, and interventions have been developed,” said Cynthia Figueroa, PYN board chair and CEO of the social service agency Congreso, which works in the Hispanic community. The progress that has been made in getting students to stay in school or re-engage after leaving is due to the “laser focus on the issue, with multiple partners.”
Another movement that is having an effect is a changed approach to discipline in schools, Fulmore-Townsend said. It is far less common now to suspend students for days or even weeks at a time for bad behavior – a policy that historically undermined the whole attendance effort and alienated students from school. Ninth-grade suspensions have declined by a third, according to the report.
Instead, there is an emphasis on restorative justice, a policy that focuses on getting students to take responsibility for their behavior and make amends.
“I’ve seen a lot of change and reform in this area,” Fulmore-Townsend said.
Hite also touted this approach as important to keep students away from the juvenile justice system.
In general, though, Fulmore-Townsend emphasized, there is no magic bullet.
“This is a really complex problem,” she said. “Young people are not homogeneous. The reasons for them leaving school are diverse. We have to customize solutions to adapt to the needs that young people have.”